Monday, February 7, 2011

Team of Rivals

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is one of those books. You know the kind. Whenever you enter a Barnes & Noble, a Borders, Powell's, this is one of those history books which is always in the best seller section right up at the front, staring at you with beady eyes. A handful of prominent sounding book awards adorning its cover. By virtue of it being everywhere, that makes it less appealing, and thus you move on. But inwardly, you know it will probably be good. You just don't want to hop on the bandwagon.

But lo and behold, I did. Not because of boredom or anything, but because the American Civil War is in fact a time period I know rather little about. I knew the details of a few of the battles, but the overall picture was sketchy. So, upon additional recommendation, I turned to Team of Rivals, a tome of near-painful length. A book focusing on President Abraham Lincoln's presidential cabinet and the politics that went on leading up to, during, and after the Civil War.

The Good

What this book did especially well is establish the character and personalities of Lincoln, William Seward, and Salmon Chase. The latter two served as Lincoln's Secretary of State and Treasury respectively. It was impressive the level of detail that is established in rendering this dramatis personae; the author tells us stories of their youth, their dreams, their worst moments, their wives, their families, and their political aspirations. I felt like I knew these figures, and I felt as if I had met people in my life who mirrored their personalities. I also was able to compare my own self to them; I came to the conclusion that, of all of them, I probably had most in common with Seward. Consequently, the book comes across as a psychological study, assessing motives and ambitions as these men clashed against one another and then ended up working effectively together as a team.

The book also impressed me with an effective and detailed description of how the Civil War came to be. I was surprised to learn that, while slavery and the expansion of it was a clear issue, the emancipation of slavery entire was on almost nobody's mind at first. Lincoln himself did not advocate against slavery, merely arguing that it needed to be kept where it was and not expanded into new states. His position was that slavery was something that would dissipate by itself in time, but that the preservation of the Union was more important than emancipation. Speaking of Lincoln, I was surprised to learn that, in the end, one of our greatest presidents was almost entirely centrist. He was a labeled Republican but, in today's terms, his actions in office were more similar to that of a moderate liberal/democrat than anything.

The Bad

The problem with this book, though, is that while the psychological analysis of these figures is quite intimate and enlightening, it distracts from what is going on. Really, I shouldn't be knocking the book on this; it is called Team of Rivals and it focuses upon the rivalry between these men. But once the war starts, it is like reading about the squabbling of children. I read page after page of cabinet members feeling unappreciated and then Lincoln stepping in to calm people down. There are endless stories of cabinet members bickering with each other. After the first few, I understood; yes, Lincoln was a political genius. But when it went on and on and on, I found myself getting irritated with the author and with these men. Given the backdrop of a gigantic Civil War, their childish temper tantrums were exceedingly annoying to hear about. I found myself wanting to slap them and say, "Hello? There's a freaking war going on out there. Shut the hell up!" But I couldn't.

Another relevant complaint I had was about the wives and daughters of these men. Especially when the war is on, the author decides to spend pages here and there describing what the women were up to. Shopping trips, decorating the White House, seeing friends, etc. Now I have no problem with women at all, but I could not understand why the book spent so much time on these figures given the circumstances. First off, the women were not a part of the presidential cabinet (the stated main focus of the book). Secondly, after describing the horrors of war and the stresses of maintaining a government during a civil conflict, hearing about Mary Todd Lincoln's expensive grocery trips was very jarring. Thus it did not make sense why so much of the book was devoted to these women. I'm sure their daily lives were compelling stuff, but it wasn't why I was reading the book.

Conclusion/The Ugly

In the end, though, I couldn't finish this book. It wasn't for lack of readability; this book is quite well written. It was because, once the Civil War began, the author made minimal effort to explain what was going on. Important battles were given mere pages next to chapters-worth focused on immature political bickering. The Battle of Gettysburg, the single most important battle of the war, was covered in less than a page, returning almost immediately to one of the cabinet members being a dumbass. Consequently, I tried, but I lost interest.

That isn't to say that this book was not good though. Like I said earlier, it was incredibly interesting to read about the varied personalities of Lincoln, Seward, and Chase, and how they made their way through life. This book also does an excellent job of explaining moment-by-moment how the Civil War came into being. But when it came to the cabinet in office during the war, I quickly lost interest and wanted to hit things. If the war itself had been covered in better detail and if the cabinet's infighting weren't so stupid, I would've gone on to finish this. Perhaps someone will who will have more tolerance than I.

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